THE CASE OF THE MISSING ASS

Did you ever notice the many discrepancies in the Gospels?  Most people do not.  But an easy way to pick them out is to compare the four — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — line by line, in a good, rather literal translation.  Using the Greek text is even better, for those who can manage Greek.

I mention the matter of discrepancies, because that is something a perceptive person familiar with the Gospels will notice in the icon type discussed today.

It is the icon for the church festival generally called Palm Sunday in the West.  The Greeks call the icon type for that day Ἡ Βαϊοφόρος — He Baiophoros — meaning “The Palm-bearing.”  Βαϊον (Baion) in Greek means “a palm branch or leaf,” and the -φόρος (-phoros) part comes from the Greek word meaning “to bear, to carry.”   You already know that ending from the name of the legendary saint Khristophoros — the “Christ-bearer,” St. Christopher.

baiophoros

If we look more closely, we can see the Ἡ Βαϊοφόρος title at the top of the icon, with the C used for the last letter “s” (sigma) instead of the modern Greek Σ form:

baiophoros_1

The Russians called this icon type the “Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem,” —  ВХОДЪ ГОСПОДЕН ВО ИЕРУСАЛИМЪ — Vkhod Gospoden vo Ierusalim, or a similar variation on those words:

(Ostankino Museum)

(Ostankino Museum)

 

Here is the title inscription, with the colors altered to make it more easily readable.  It is worn and damaged; someone seems to have done a paint removal test strip at right to see what was beneath:

It reads:

ВХОДЪ ВО ИЕРУСАЛИМЪ Г[ОСПО]ДА НАШ[Е]ГО ИИ[СУ]СА [ХРИС]ТА
Vkhod vo Ierusalim Gospoda Nashego Iisusa Khrista
“The Entry into Jerusalem of Our Lord Jesus

There is little difference in content between Greek and Russian versions of the type.  Many painters liked to place people in the background trees, which often look nothing like palms.  Both Greek and Russian examples show Jesus riding on an ass.  Behind him are his apostles, with a mountain in the background, and before him the people of Jerusalem, with the city gate.  Various people strew their garments beneath the hooves of the ass.

Now the problem with this icon, for those familiar with biblical discrepancies, is that there is only one ass.  So how is that a problem?

The problem arises in the gospel called “of Matthew” (no one really knows who, or how many people, were involved in the writing of the Gospels; the oldest existing Greek manuscripts are anonymous). Matthew says that Jesus rode into Jerusalem “sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.”  Riding on two asses?  It’s a good trick if you can do it.

None of the other gospel writers have this issue.  Mark, Luke, and John all say that Jesus only rode one ass.

Interestingly, however, both John and Matthew use a supposed prophecy of the messiah, found in Zechariah 9:9:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, your King comes to you: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.”

John gives a very loose quote of it, saying.
Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, your King comes, sitting on an ass’s colt.”

So John has simply combined the ass and the foal into one animal.

Matthew, however, is much more literal.  He gives the quote as:
Tell the daughter of Sion, Behold, your King comes to you, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.”

The root of the problem lies in the fact that Zechariah wrote using a literary technique of old Hebrew poetry called parallelism.  A writer would say the same thing twice, but in two different ways:

…riding upon an ass,
and upon the foal of an ass.

Only one ass was meant.

Matthew, however, either did not know about parallelism in Hebrew literature, or else he held the view that God did not waste words, so if two animals were mentioned, then Jesus must have ridden into Jerusalem on two animals.

That is not the end of difficulties with the “case of the missing ass,” but it is enough for you to know that Eastern Orthodox iconography decided not to follow Matthew in this.  So the standard icon type of the “Entry Into Jerusalem” depicts only one ass.  Western European art is a bit more varied.  We often find two asses, an older and a younger, with the younger either beneath the older or very close by.

Here is how the painter of Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (“The Very Rich Hours of the Duke du Berry”) did it in the early 1400s:

(Musée Condé, Chantilly, France )

(Musée Condé, Chantilly, France )

 

 

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